Before the inception of Lollapalooza, American music festivals were in a major rut — especially when compared with those in Europe and Australia. There were some historic one-off exceptions (Woodstock and the Altamont Speedway festival, both in 1969, come to mind) and a few scattered annual festivals across the country, like Jazz Fest in New Orleans and Milwaukee’s Summerfest, which were inaugurated in 1970 and 1968, respectively, and Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival, whose origins date back to 1971. Prior to Lollapalooza, though, there was no Coachella, Bonnaroo or Vans Warped Tour, all hugely successful festivals that are now firmly planted in the annual U.S. music calendar. Most notable, though, is that before Lollapalooza’s debut in 1991, no music festival had ever hit the road — packing, unpacking and repacking its stages, merch booths, soundboards and bands — for folks to enjoy across the country in a variety of cities. A festival tour.
Lollapalooza was so successful and groundbreaking that it quickly became part of the vernacular: Like friending someone or tweeting something, you could “palooza” anything to signify a no-holds-barred party: Baby showers became Babypaloozas. Luke Wilson’s frat party in Old School became Mitch-a-Palooza. (Don’t quote me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Bonnaroo’s organizers didn’t once consider Bonnaroopalooza.) Was Farrell crazy? No. It turns out he just wanted to throw Perrypalooza.
“You have to understand, since the beginning of my career as a musician, I have always put on my own parties,” Farrell explains. “The underground [bands] in Los Angeles — they didn’t play on the Sunset Strip because of the pay-to-play policy that was rampant at that time. To push back against that, the underground found venues like lofts, or we would go out to the desert and put on shows. So, I started to learn how to put on my own shows almost as a defense mechanism to stay alive. I couldn’t afford to pay anybody to play their venue.
“With Jane’s Addiction, we always put on our own shows,” he continues. “So I had done these parties before, but now I’m thinking on a much larger scale. Last licks for Jane’s Addiction were in 1991. We had a lot of juice, and we’re riding high. We’d been on the road for an 18-month tour and my agent, Marc Geiger, said to me, ‘Do whatever you want.’ … So I came back to him with a long list of artists I wanted to tour with, along with the idea of having art, hot-air balloons, helicopters — I think I overreached in those days.”
Helicopters and hot-air balloons didn’t happen, but nonetheless, Lollapalooza was born. The name, an out-of-date idiomatic term meaning “an extraordinary or unusual thing, person, or event; an exceptional example or instance,” which Farrell had heard in a Three Stooges short film, was as enigmatic as the idea: Let’s hit the road with numerous bands of wildly contrary genres — Ice-T’s Body Count was paired with Siouxsie and the Banshees and Living Colour in year one — and lug as much culture, art and activism as far as the ride will carry us. That clashing of genres in that initial lineup — and in every one since — was essentially a pre-Apple version of the iPod Shuffle. “All of this predates the iPod,” Farrell says. “The iPod was invented a few years later, and people did start to collect music and spread out their musical horizons, because now you had something that could hold lots of music. Before that, you had a record collection, but you just put it on this one little turnstile. Now you have this little box you can fill up with lots of different things.”
It was those many different things that also led Lollapalooza to another groundbreaking concept at the time: multiple stages.? First, there was just a side stage. By 1996, there was an indie stage too. In Chicago this August, there will be no fewer than eight stages. “We introduced the idea of a second stage and third stage and fourth stage and fifth stage,” Farrell says. “Before that, it was a stage.”
It is an excellent metaphor for the growth of the festival itself, though the inevitable speed bumps began creeping onto the stage. The first came in 1994, when scheduled headliners Nirvana pulled out of the festival just one day before Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide. “I was in pretty bad shape myself,” remembers Farrell, referring to his own struggles with addiction. “I was living with this girl whose brother was a big Nirvana fan. The night before that happened, I got a call from Courtney Love, asking me where [Kurt] was. I didn’t know. Then he killed himself, and my girlfriend’s brother did a copycat suicide and shot himself with a rifle as well. To tell you the truth, I was almost numb to everything anyway.”
Despite the tragedy, Farrell sees the 1994 edition of Lollapalooza as a turning point for the festival. Smashing Pumpkins took over the slot that Nirvana left vacant, and Farrell counts Cobain’s suicide as the catalyst for Lollapalooza’s finding its true way. “I thought Nirvana doing it was great, but I must admit, I was annoyed,” Farrell says. “Jane’s Addiction broke through and made the way for all these alternative groups to come through. But Nirvana came barreling through that door. As a human being and a musician, sometimes you want the same successes. But all added up, I was happy for them; they were true artists with great talent. Sometimes people say that when people die, what they stood for kind of explodes into the sky for people to grab. In a weird way, when Kurt died, all that music exploded into the sky and people grabbed that energy up. That was year four. That’s when Lollapalooza? really came into its own.”
From there, Lollapalooza enjoyed a seriously fun run for the next few years — even on the Sabbath (Farrell is Jewish). “I had a guy who would travel with me,” recalls Farrell. “He was a seriously hooked-up gangster kid from New York, but also a bass tech. I remember on every Friday, we would have unpasteurized cheese flown in from France or Italy, and we would have these parties backstage — the wine, the cheese, the olives and these great cured meats. It was a social event for everyone.”